Friday, April 10, 2015

Salon Christianity Secrets: God Is Three Persons

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Trinity Adored by Saints and Angels 

Oakes Spalding, From the Front Lines

FFL  This article originally appeared in From the Front Lines, New Perspectives on Faith and Culture

"God is three distinct persons in one substance, essence or nature."

This is one claim that Christians will likely not hear in their homilies this Sunday. And yet the doctrine has deep roots in Christian tradition.

One version of the fourth century Nicene Creed reads, "the one Lord, Jesus of one substance with the Father. And the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father...but is together with the Father and Son."

To modern Christian ears, there is something almost unseemly about this idea.

Contemporary Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and other congregations include these phrases in the profession of faith recited at Sunday services. The phrase, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit", usually proceeds every Catholic prayer, and the doctrine is at least nominally referenced in various other ways. But it is unlikely that most adherents give the so-called "doctrine of the Trinity" more than a passing thought, ironically perhaps due to the overuse of rote formulas.

But to the early Christians, the Trinity was no familiar triviality. Rather, they spent huge amounts of theological capital debating the finer points of the doctrine. Were the persons "co-substantial"? Did one person "proceed" from another? These debates often came to blows. Heresies and Heretics were created--the term had a better chance of sticking when applied by the winners--and Church Councils were convened in part to settle the related issues.

Medieval philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the theological implications. And of course the Eastern Orthodox Church has always had a rich tradition of philosophical analysis and a respect for the more complex and mystical elements of Christian tradition.

To contemporary believers, used to the comfortable commands and familiar certainties of organized American Christianity, the idea of central elements of the Faith being built on apparent paradox may seem jarring. And this is doubly ironic as Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" is often favorably contrasted with the "hubristic" rationalism of science and the secular world. What would these churchgoers think when confronted with a real leap of faith?

As G.K. Chesterton once said, "There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds."

Or to put it another way, maybe it isn't turtles all the way down.

Oakes Spalding is an award-winning blogger and religion columnist for Salon, The Huffington Post, the New York Times and others. He divides his free-time between spelunking, organized Shakespeare readings and raising one daughter and four cats.

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